Throughout 2010 I am revisiting the little green nature book that accompanied my childhood and seeing if the plants and animals featured in its monthly sketchbook pages are still around.
The book is “Wild Life Through the Year” by Richard Morse and it was published in 1942. You can read about earlier months here.
It’s all a bit annoying, as I keep on spotting things in the “wrong” month. I know the book isn’t supposed to be that prescriptive, but it’s messing me about. For example, in August I spotted the common hair moss mentioned in June and the peacock butterfly mentioned in March, plus the harvestman and ragwort yet to come in September. Ah well, I’m going to carry on regardless as at least I am recognising more species than ever before…
The beginning of August was warm and wet, in the middle there was a cooler, fresher and more showery spell. But the end of the month is very wet and windy and it seems more like the start of autumn than the end of summer.
This time of year always seems to be a tired one in nature and especially the garden, which by now is full of plants either overgrown or with dead flower heads.
On the garden bird front we are back to basics – dunnocks, robins, blue, great and coal tits, blackbirds and song thrushes, plus the greedy magpies, wood pigeons and collared doves. There are still juveniles around, but no new babies. The starlings and wrens that caused me such excitement earlier in the year are gone again.
I did spot one juvenile blackcap – the head neither as red as a female’s nor as black as an adult male’s.
The grey squirrels and the fox are still ever present in the garden – the fox now seems to drink early every morning from a bowl of water put out for the birds. The neighbour’s white cat continues its flirtation with the fox.
I have been out and about on holiday for a fortnight in August, so I have been seeing some wildlife elsewhere, too.
On the insect front I spot what I can and again my holiday trips have been a treat. In particular a visit to the gardens of Aberglasney . Pictured at the top of this post is a peacock butterfly from there and here’s a small tortoiseshell…
Here is what you would expect to see in August in the 1940s…
1. Starling in song 2. Red underwing moth 3. Ripe fruits of birch 4. Ripe fruits of barberry 5. Coal tit 6. Head of adder 7. Grass snake 8. Sundew 9. Fleabane 10. Cranefly 11. Broom fork-moss 12. Ink-cap fungi
1. Starling in song
I haven’t seen starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in song or in the garden in August, but there was a gang of them at the seaside in Porthcawl on a recent day out (my day out, not theirs).
Read more about starlings in my blog post here.
2. Red underwing moth
According to UK Safari this moth is common in Southern Britain. Its caterpillars feed on willow and poplar.
The red underwing is the largest of the 300 noctuid moths in the UK. When resting during the day it’s perfectly camouflaged against the bark of a tree. When disturbed it flashes its bright black and red petticoats in a bid to surprise predators.
Maybe it’s because the others are well camouflaged, but I’m afraid I see nothing but the most uncolourful moths. I spotted one very dark one (pictured below) on the wall outside the back door and snapped it, but then left the door open and it flew in, fluttering heavy and black through the hallway until I shooed it out through the front door.
It took me a while to identify the moth, and I had no luck online. In the end I resorted to my old “The Observer’s Book of the Larger British Moths”, 1952. And there it was – the old lady moth (Mormo maura). Even in those days it was common in suburban gardens and sheds. I’m VERY pleased to add it to my list of “things I recogise”…
3. Ripe fruits of birch
Oh dear, I missed my chance on this one. A neighbour has a silver birch (Betula pendula) tree and all the tiny star-like flowers were under foot a few months ago. That must have led to fruits last month, but there is nothing there now.
The wild birch (Betula pubescens) pictured above is probably the sort the 1940s book meant, but the silver birch is planted in the UK as an ornamental tree and is more common in suburban gardens.
4. Ripe fruits of barberry
Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is not familiar to me in the wild and I have read that it is not actually native to the UK but naturalised here. However, I now realise, of course, that I have several different ornamental Berberis bushes in my own garden. But I have checked and they are not in fruit. This one, pictured in flower in my garden back in April, is Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea or Japanese barberry.
Barberries aside, it has been a time for fruit everywhere and here are some examples I have spotted…
5. Coal tit
The coal tit is in our garden all year round and I have taken several pictures in the past, click here. But in August the coal tits have been a bit timid and very lively, so I haven’t been able to snap a good picture. Which is a shame, as I have noticed they are very pink at the moment, not their usual yellowish tinge. For this reason I am using someone else’s image (above), which reflects the way the bird looks at the moment.
6. Head of adder Vipera berus
7. Grass snake Natrix natrix
I put these two snakes together because when I was a child in the 1950 and 1960s we had to know the difference. As far as we knew, the adder was poisonous and would kill you if it bit you, while the grass snake was harmless. Apparently the adder isn’t actually THAT poisonous, but it is venomous.
I was always taught that if you saw a snake in the grass you looked at the pattern on the back of its neck and if it had a V it was a viper (adder). Looking at the picture above, that’s not really the way – the snakes are very different and the adder has a very marked pattern all along its back.
I do have one anecdote from my country childhood. There was a big pile of stones on derelict property next door and an adder once crawled out from it. The cats hissed and my mother sent me into the house. But much later, after the man across the road had failed to tackle it, my mother cut it in half with a wood-chopper.
I remember seeing it in two pieces on the iron cover on top of our “well”. It was covered in dark red blood as if it had been skinned, but I don’t suppose it had been…
The adder is so threatened in the UK that it has its own conservation organisation.
There is a legend that the island of Ireland has no snakes because they were driven out by patron Saint Patrick, but it is more likely there never were snakes in Ireland after the last ice age.
I have had these as “pets” but never seen one in the wild. Like Venus fly traps they are carnivorous, catching and digesting insects to feed their nitrogen needs, which aren’t satisfied in their boggy, peaty habitat.
Mmm, I tend to get confused by yellow daisy-like flowers, although this seems to have distinctive greyish leaves, so maybe I will know it next time. It grows in wetland and near streams. Traditionally it was used to repel fleas (hence its common name) and dysentery (hence its Latin name Pulicaria dysenterica).
When I was recently at Llanelli Wildfowl and Wetland Centre I did take pictures of another yellow daisy-like flower, which I think is probably ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)…
We see craneflies (Tipula of some sort) flying around in the kitchen more or less all year round. They are a dithering annoyance most of the time, but harmless. Until quite recently I confused them with mosquitoes (the common British one is Culex pipiens).
Part of the confusion is because of the use of the country name “daddy-long-legs” for many different creatures. I have heard this used not only for the cranefly and mosquito but also the harvestman, which is a simple relative of spiders. Here’s a great harvestman I snapped on holiday in Dorset…
11. Broom fork-moss
I don’t think I have seen this one. Apparently it grows in damp areas on acid soils. However, I am pleased as punch that I recently spotted a clump of common hair-moss (Polytrichum commune), which was featured in the June wildlife sketchbook.
And here it is. I’m getting quite good at mosses!
12. Ink-cap fungi
Although I love fungi, I’m afraid I haven’t seen any in August despite the very wet weather – apart from some furry grey mould on a leather chair left out in the yard!
You can find more pictures from my August garden here …
See other months in the Wildlife Through the Year archive